Assasi project continues.
PORTLAND, Maine- So a few months ago, Zac — the rapper Assasi that I’m making a film about — was in NYC at a small concert at a bar. When the musicians took a break he walked up to the front man, introduced himself as a hip hop artist from Syria, and asked if he’d be interested in jamming. The singer initially put him off — who walks up to a performing musician and asks if they could jump up on stage too? — but then he felt like a douche. A few songs later he ran out into the crowd and invited Zac up on stage. Zac went up, freestyled, and had a good time.
Apparently, he also did pretty well, as this musician asked him to be on his next album. Zac said of course, wrote and recorded a verse, and on the record it went.
The muscian’s name was Joe Benjamin. I initially assumed that he was a rapper too — that would make sense — but I couldn’t have been more wrong:
How the f’ck do you rap to that? I have no idea … but Zac can do it.
Whereas in writing, where the storyteller is an inseparable part of the story, in documentary, the storyteller sits on the fringes of the story — showing the reality of the protagonist rather than being the protagonist, which means living parallel with someone else’s reality.
Anyway, Joe’s band just kicked off their summer tour with a stop in Portland, and they invited Zac down to perform the song that they did together. So Zac, his wife / manager, and I got all ready jumped into the car and drove two hours so Zac could sing for like … 30 seconds.
Why was this worth it?
Documentary is a strange kind of art. Whereas in writing, where the storyteller is an inseparable part of the story, in documentary, the storyteller sits on the fringes of the story — showing the reality of the protagonist rather than being the protagonist, which means living parallel with someone else’s reality.
When I write I am the main character — I am the one who drives the story. My first book was about traveling to China’s ghost cities — it was a book about my travels. My second book is about the New Silk Road, and is likewise a story about my reality traveling the routes.
When I first got into documentary I attempted to do it in the same way that I do my books. I aimed to do everything the same — the only caveat would be that I would do it all in front of a camera.
This didn’t work out as well as I would have liked.
So I began experimenting with other ways of telling the story, bestowing protagonist-ship upon other individuals and allowing them to tell their own stories. When doing this, my role becomes very different — the me in me vanishes and I become this weird outside entity, a voice from the side of the stage guiding the flow of action rather than creating it.
Documentary is humbling.
So we drove down to Portland. The show was at a place called Empire. It was a simple venue — a stage, a dance floor, a few high-hat tables, and a bar. Very straight forward, simple — perfect. The crowd was friendly. People looked at you and smiled. They were happy to be out with other people — very unlike Bangor, where their is this odd municipal insecurity complex that renders people vastly less than friendly. I looked at a girl wearing a Descendants t-shirt. She smiled at me and we talked about the Descendants. It was a simple interaction — one that I wouldn’t have made a note of in another country, but here it really indicated something.
I drank a can of wine. No joke — a can of wine. (Why not?)
Zac transformed into Assasi: eyeliner, fez, sash. He looked at me and told me he was nervous. Excited was probably the better word. This guy’s brain is wired weird. He needs to perform or he wilts up like a neglected little flower. He’s a pretty easy guy to film. I just sit back and turn the camera on and he does his thing. Every once in a while I call out a topic.
Joe Benjamin played through a few of his magnificently rainbow-y songs, and then invited Assasi up to the stage. Assasi did his Assasi thing for a minute or so.
Then we drove two hours home.
The documentary life.
Next post: Filming A Hip Hop Cypher